The laughs generated by host Jerrod Carmichael may have been absent at the 80th Golden Globe Awards this month, but the stars were out in fine form. Austin Butler was named Best Actor in a Drama for his titular turn in Elvis and Ana de Armas received a Best Actress in a Drama nod for playing Marilyn Monroe in Blonde. Even Colin Farrell praised the ingénue for her moving performance when he picked up his Best Actor in a Comedy prize for The Banshees of Inisherin.
Thanks to their emotional transparency and incarnate physicality, de Armas and Butler followed up their Golden Globes appearance with SAG and BAFTA nominations, strengthening a path to Oscar recognition. Their acclaimed portrayals of pop culture’s most famous legends redeem the overly-long and indulgent biopics they star in.
With an $85 million budget, director Baz Luhrmann’s “more is more” technique in Elvis comes off as cinematic trickery. The superfluous zooms, cuts, and overlapping music act as distractions to mask the fact that the production doesn’t offer anything more on the singer than a Wikipedia summary.
As expected, Elvis’s mother Gladys (Helen Thomson) and child bride Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) are included in the story. But it seems a lost opportunity that Luhrmann didn’t spend any of the film’s 2 hours and 39 minutes on The King’s less mentioned affairs, including one with his supposed soulmate Ann-Margret. Instead, the movie revolves around his relationship with corrupt manager Colonel Parker (Tom Hanks).
Enveloped in prosthetics and a heavy-handed accent, Hanks is meant to be unappealing. Needless to say, a little of his character goes a long way. Unfortunately, he can be seen in every other scene and heard throughout the film via intrusive narration.
Despite Luhrmann’s over the top showmanship, he and co-writers Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner create a lazy, “tell rather than show” screenplay. The Australian filmmaker’s style-over-substance treatment is further proof that he is ill equipped to provide meaningful insight into America’s beloved icon.
In Blonde, Australian director/writer Andrew Dominik elaborates on the artistic license Joyce Carol Oates applied in her fictional novel of the same name to suggest a reality behind the myth of Marilyn Monroe. This includes a fabricated ménage à trois between the starlet and Hollywood offspring Charles Chaplin III (Xavier Samuel) and Edward G. Robinson Jr. (Evan Williams).
The film also includes interpretations of Monroe’s documented tryst with President John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson); her friendship with makeup artist Whitey Snyder (Toby Huss); and on-set tension with her Some Like It Hot co-star Jack Lemmon (Chris Lemmon) and director Billy Wilder (Ravil Isyanov).
While Adrien Brody gives a layered turn as playwright Arthur Miller, Bobby Cannavale’s portrayal of former Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio won’t be scoring any awards. Yet both depictions of Monroe’s real-life husbands reveal the actress’s deep-seated daddy issues.
Like Elvis (who had mommy issues), Marilyn was greatly affected by a dysfunctional mother (also named Gladys) and an unstable childhood. After using their sexual charisma and talent to escape poverty, both celebrities became trapped by drugs which led to their untimely deaths.
For Monroe, who didn’t know her father or have the support of a friendly entourage as Elvis did, her fragility and longing for security appears more intense. And, as a blonde bombshell, her desire to be seen as a serious actress and intellectual feels futile during the mid 20th century.
To his credit, Dominik’s adaptation brings out these points while using its $22 million budget to paint a stylish portrait through Chayse Irvin’s innovative cinematography which combines color footage shot in retro ratios and more contemporary digital black-and-white formatting.
However, the film fails to showcase the comic skills of Monroe and the fulfillment she must have felt from her accomplishments. As a result, audiences must witness 2 hours and 46 minutes of hardships. Scenes of Marilyn as a little girl (Lily Fisher) with her mentally-unbalanced mother (Julianne Nicholson) are particularly difficult to watch.
Although Blonde and Elvis feature excellent lead performances and deserve points for taking unorthodox approaches to familiar topics, most viewers will be left wanting. At best, these bloated biopics serve as very long trailers for Ms. Monroe and Mr. Presley’s actual work.
* Since this review posted, both Ana de Armas and Justin Butler received Oscar nominations for their performances in these biopics.